Saturday, 23 July 2016

JAPAN 2016: Honshu (30 June-07 July)

This is the second of three posts detailing a trip to Japan with Nick Preston, we had started in Hokkaido and were now heading south ...

30 June. We were up at 03:30 in anticipation of a good seawatch to discover visibility was less than 50m as we were sailing south through thick fog. We went on deck at 06:00 when the sun appeared to be attempting to break through but it was still impossible to see anything. At 06:45 it suddenly cleared and immediately we saw Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses and Short-tailed Shearwater amongst the many Streaked Shearwaters. That so many birds were around the ship made us bitterly regret more the earlier lost hours. Just as quickly as it cleared, ten minutes later we hit fog again although thankfully it only lasted for another 20 minutes. The rest of the voyage was clear, although fog still hung over the coast, and the sea was calm making it easier to see birds on the water. Birding was excellent to mid morning, variety but not numbers reduced to early afternoon when it became just Streaked Shearwaters and the occasional Black-footed Albatross, picking up an hour or so before we approached Oarai at dusk. We saw nearly 4000 Streaked and 18 Short-tailed Shearwaters, 32 Black-footed and 9 Laysan Albatrosses, Band-rumped and Tristran’s Petrels, 9 Ancient Murrelets, a Pacific Diver and 3 South Polar Skuas. We were sure numbers and variety would have been increased if we’d not lost what were potentially the best 3.5 hours due to fog. The ferry had been excellent with a comfortable bed and ready supply of hot water. The deck offered reasonable viewing but there were very few seats. We disembarked at 19:45 and caught a ‘connecting’ bus to Mitu station half an hour later where we found our adjacent hotel. We had a meal in a nearby McDonalds and had a good night’s sleep.
not the weather we'd hoped to wake up to
Honshu coast and calm sea
still rather murky


our sister ferry heading north
Black-footed Albatross


and Streaked Shearwater




dolphins

low cloud over the Honshu coast
01 July. A lie in to 07:00 as the car hire office didn’t open until 08:00. We arrived at 07:45 to find it staffed and after completing formalities and having Sasagawa station, or somewhere nearby, programmed into the Sat-Nav we were on our way at 08:05. We reached Sasagawa at 10:00 and soon recognised the lock gates where we wanted to be. We quickly located Japanese Reed Bunting and Marsh Grassbird obtaining good views of both, the easiest birding so far in Japan, and left at 10:30 for the long drive through Tokyo to Mt Fuji, clocking up over £40 in road tolls. The Sav-Nav didn’t recognise the telephone number of the hotel we were staying in but came up with a generic destination which seemed to be about right. As it turned out it was in the next town and took us 10km too far. Once found we checked into the Hatago Ichiya, a very pleasant pension, dumped our bags and drove up the eastern road (150) onto Mt Fuji. We were soon in cloud although it thinned at times. We continued to the end of the road and parked. After 10 minutes we were about to head lower down when it cleared somewhat so we walked along a trail to a hidden river (it only flows in May, presumably from melted snow). We saw Olive-backed Pipits, a male Red-flanked Bluetail and had poor views of Brown-headed Thrushes (again) but generally there were few birds. Back in town we ate in Denny’s.
Japanese Reed Bunting


rather flighty
toll road through Tokyo

Mt Fuji

cloudy
it finally cleared
Olive-backed Pipit on Mt Fuji



02 July. We left the pension at 04:00 and drove to Station 5 where we arrived at 05:00. It was already very busy, probably to be expected on a Saturday, with the nearest unoccupied parking 1km down the road. Japanese Leaf Warblers were vocal and we saw several. We walked up to Station 6 and slightly higher to find Japanese Accentor obtaining good views of three and several juvenile Red-flanked Bluetails in a small patch of scrub above the tree line. We returned to the car and made several stops on the way down the toll road seeing a superb male Japanese Robin at one but nothing further of note. We then tried a site for Yellow Bunting without success but were rewarded with a male Japanese Thrush feeding on the side of a track, a little too distant for photography. We left Mt Fuji at 15:00 arriving in Tokyo at 17:45. All but the last 3 kms of the journey had been on (expensive) toll roads and we’d not seen a garage to fill up the car. At the car hire reception in Shinagawa we were given a map to the nearest garage and refueled the car saving 30% on what we would otherwise have been charged for brinnging it back half empty. We walked the short distance to Shinagawa station, purchased a ticket and caught the local train the short distance 95 minutes journey time) to Hamamatschuo. The ferry terminal was signposted and a 15 minute walk. When the ticket office opened, at 20:00, we bought the cheapest berths available, sharing an 8 person floor-space with carpet and hard pillow. We boarded at 22:20 and were fortunate to have the ‘cabin’ to ourselves. I fell asleep soon after we departed at 22:30 despite seemingly being right above the engine room. Perhaps the only advantage of being deaf in one ear is sleeping with good side down is as good as having earplugs. The floor was hard and it was a bit cold in the night so I dug out my jacket and slept reasonably well.
early morning view of Mt Fuji



Frodo Baggins on Mt Doom

fortunately we didn't need to go any higher



Japanese Accentor

young Red-flanked Bluetail
mum with breakfast





lower slopes of Mt Fuji


Tokyo ring roads



our 8 berth 'cabin',fortunately we had it to ourselves
03 July. We were up at 04:00 to find it still dark but the sky starting to lighten. As the light improved dark shapes over the sea revealed themselves to be Streaked Shearwaters but views were not great. Miyakejima was coming into view, the higher slopes of the volcano hidden by low clouds. We docked at Miike Port at 05:00, disembarked, realised we had not come into the port where our hotel was and were getting onto a local bus when we were intercepted by someone from the hotel who had come to meet us. It was 20 minutes ride to the Kairaku Hotel, passing Tairo-ike, the main site, on the way. Tempting as it was to ask to be let out while our bags were taken to the hotel we thought it best to see where we were staying first. We were at the hotel at 05:45, left our bags in a storage room as check-in time was not until 15:00 and passed on the offer of breakfast (a very wise move as it turned out). It was about 7km to Tairo-ike and although served by 5 round island buses a day the first was not until 08:00. We decided to walk leaving at 06:00. On the way, approaching a roadside shrine about half-way there, we heard then saw well a Pleske’s Grasshopper  Warbler, the one endemic not present around the lake. We also saw our first Izu Thrushes along the road and Ijima’s Leaf Warbler, Owston’s Tit and Japanese Robin on the track to the visitor centre. Those, Japanese Wood Pigeon and the endemic race of Wren meant we had seen all the key species before 08:30, the time the bus would have arrived. We spent much of the day waking around the lake and sitting out on the two jetties into it – if only to escape attentions of the ferocious mosquitoes in the forest. We caught the 15:30 bus back to Ako and were the only passengers on it. After checking in and sorting a few things out we walked to a nearby headland hoping there might be some passage offshore. There wasn’t and the light was awful but another Pleske’s Grasshopper Warbler was nice compensation. Back at the hotel dinner was probably our worst meal to date – Japanese style with lots of courses, several uncooked and not to our taste at all. We’d been given no choice and assumed it was a set menu so were decidedly unimpressed to see a pizza being delivered to one table and chips to another. A room only arrangement would have been far preferable to what we had.
our first view of Miyakejima
Nick on the Tairo-ike approach road
Japanese Robin
the Izu race with no black breastband or on the underparts
Tairo-ike
very old tree
Ako
coast at Ako
re-vegetated lava flow 
04 July. The ferry back to Tokyo was at 13:35 and we decided against returning to the lake as that would involve walking at least one way. We decided instead to try Toga headland which was half the distance. We were up at 05:30 but it was very foggy so we decided to have breakfast in the hotel. Big mistake, raw egg, dried fish ad a few grated vegetables and a cold tea/coffee concoction which left an unpleasant after-taste. We retired to the room where I added boiling water to a sachet of instant couscous. Not great but edible. At 07:00 we walked to Toga headland, visibility had improved but remained less than 1km. We saw five Pleske’s Grasshopper Warblers, four of which were singing males. We returned to the hotel, packed and checked out at 10:00 and waited for news of which port the ferry would be arriving at. Unfortunately it was the one we had come into, reducing our chance of seeing Japanese Murrelet which bred on a small islet a couple of kms off Ako.  At 12:45 we were mini-bused to Miike Port. It had been foggy still at Ako when we left but was completely clear at Miike although the volcano was still mostly obscured by low clouds. The ferry arrived out of the fog at 13:20 and docked and was turned around in 10 minutes – very impressive. Streaked Shearwaters appeared soon after we departed but the ferry was travelling quite fast making it hard to obtain decent views. Otherwise a dark-morph Wedge-tailed Shearwater was our only sighting on what was ultimately a disappointing crossing – no storm-petrels at all. We approached Oshima and docked there for another brief stop. It was then a long slog back to Tokyo where we arrived at 20:40, almost an hour later than anticipated - we had not appreciated that the timetable had just changed to add the stop at Oshima so we were actually on time. We quickly walked to Hamamatsucho Station, pleased that we had reconnoitred where the ticket machines were when passing through earlier. We bought tickets to Karuizawa via Ueno and soon boarded a rather crowded JR local train.  The Shinkansen express station at Ueno was clearly signed and we soon found the right platform and where the unreserved carriages would stop. The train was on time (we expected no less) and we readily found seats, although not together. The luggage racks were ample for our bags too. Stations were announced ahead of arrival and just over an hour later, at 22:47, we were at Karuizawa. We were being met by Dice who helped run his family pension but had forgotten to ask him if we should eave by north or south exit. Just as we had to choose between the two he came up to us and we were soon on our way to Edohara Pension. Fifteen minutes later we arrived and were shown our room. Dice made us a cup of tea and gave us information and a helpful trail guide for the best forest areas around. We negotiated to have breakfast at 10:00, after being assured it was western style (and so worth having – it was). The only disadvantage of being at Edohara without transport was that it was a 2km walk to the main forest trails.
Izu Thrush
Pleske's Grasshopper Warbler, impressive feet




Japanese Weasel
introduced onto Miyakejima in 1982 to control rats
unfortunately Japanese Bush Warblers and Izu Thrushes are to its liking too
our ferry appearing out of the fog
once on board we made straight for the deck

last views of Miyakejima
Oshima
Tokyo lights


05 July. We were up at 04:00. It was still dark as we walked down the road to the start of the forest trails but was light when we arrived at 04:40. We birded there until just after 09:30. The forest was generally quiet although we did see a male Yellow Bunting, my target species for the site, and Blue & White and Narcissus Flycatchers. It was then a 25 minute walk back for an excellent western-style breakfast – the best of the trip. We relaxed to noon and then returned to the forest trails spending until 18:20 there. We walked up the main river track seeing another Yellow Bunting and a Giant Flying Squirrel looking out of a nest box but otherwise it was very quiet until a small burst of activity from 17:00. It included a superb Asian Stubtail, 2 more Yellow Buntings, Japanese Thrush and Varied Tit. Nick saw a female Siberian Blue Robin by the trail as we were leaving but I was late onto it and only saw a shape drop off a log which was disappointing. We were back at Edohara at 18:50 and had a very nice meal, again our best in Japan.
Narcissus Flycatcher

female Meadow Bunting
male Meadow Bunting
Giant Flying Squirrel
poorly focused Blue and White Flycatcher
Yellow Bunting, not that yellow but still quite nice
06 July. We were up at 03:30 and on the main forest trail at dawn. Nick found the Siberian Blue Robin a little further up the trail than it had been the previous evening but I was at the original spot and it had gone into the vegetation before I reached him. Fortunately it reappeared five minutes later and I had good views. We walked several trails but again it was very quiet, bird densities appeared to be very low. As we were returning we heard a Japanese Robin singing but it failed to come in to tape. I went in disturbing a male Siberian Blue Robin which perched up before disappearing but that was it, time to leave for 10:00 breakfast, not something we were keen to miss. We didn’t feel a fourth visit to the forest would add much and decided to try a trail behind the lodge that headed into another area of woods. Feeling wasted we left it to 12:30 before going out. The trail led to a waterfall but was again very quiet for birds. We had another excellent dinner and an early night.
Giant Flying Squirrel still looking out of its nestbox
waterfall above the Edohara
07 July. We were up at 06:00 and had a short unproductive walk around Edohora Pension before breakfast at 07:00. We said a sad goodbye to Mitsuo and Hiroka, they had looked after us very well. Dice drove us down to the station and helped us with tickets to Hamamatsucho. Dice and I queued in the ticket office while Nick headed for a ticket machine and it was soon apparent that he would be quicker. The train was on time, the 08:14 Shinkansen to Tokyo. We easily found seats and changed at Ueno, as before - it was cheaper avoiding Tokyo or spending less time of the Shinkansen. The local Yamanote line train was very busy and at Hamamatsucho we changed, following signs to the monorail and buying tickets from a machine at the entrance. All very easy with signs and announcements in English. We alighted at Haneda Terminal 1 an hour or so earlier than perhaps was necessary but the later train would have been rather tight. Our flight was listed but with the warning it might divert due to strong winds on Amami, not encouraging and our first inkling that all might not be well weather-wise.
Pension Edohara
me and Nick with Hiroka and Mitsuo (photo taken by Dice)

Shinkansen arriving at Karuizawa
heading for the monorail at Hamamatsucho